El Hierro, which was formed around 1.2 million years ago, is affectionately known as ‘Isla del Meridiano’ (the ‘Meridian Island’), and it is the smallest and farthest south and west of the Canary Island archipelago. Just like the other Canary Islands El Hierro is mountainous and volcanic, and only one eruption (which lasted around four weeks) has ever been recorded on the island, which came from the Volcan de Lomo Negro vent in 1793. However, at least three major landslides have affected El Hierro in the last few hundred thousand years, the most recent of these was the ‘El Golfo’ landslide that occurred about 15 thousand years ago. The indigenous people are descendants of the ancient Bimbache tribes, who worshipped the sacred garoe evergreen tree, which produces water from its leaves. Before Christopher Columbus discovered the Americas (which was actually an accident, because he was originally sailing in search of a new route to India, when he discovered them -hence he named the islands ‘The West Indies’), the south-western tip of El Hierro was considered to be ‘The end of the world’.
In Roman times, El Hierro was inhabited by giant lizards, (a throwback to the prehistoric iguanas which once roamed free on the island) and a few examples of these reptiles exist to this day on the Roques de Salmor, on the northwest coast. In 2000, El Hierro was designated by UNESCO as a Biosphere Reserve, with three-fifths of its territory protected, in order to preserve its natural and cultural diversity. The current highest point is situated in the middle of the island, in Malpaso, which tops-out at 1,501m. El Hierro is currently involved in a €54 million project, which will eventually make it the first island in the world to be completely energy self-sufficient. So what did I discover on my two-day jaunt around this truly magical island?
Compared to all of the others El Hierro felt like an uncharted island to me, and so I was really looking forward to arriving on this, the smallest and remotest island in the archipelago. Landing at Puerto de la Estaca on the north-eastern coast, we headed directly for Valverde, the islands’ capital, which is less than half-an-hours’ drive from the port. From here we drove straight through the centre of the island, on the one and only main road which links most of the islands’ towns and villages. At Tigaday we reached the end of the main road, and now we were on a secondary road to the town of Sabinosa, which was around 6km from ‘The End of the World’.
Although there are 35 beaches on El Hierro, there seemed to be hardly any roads leading down to those on the south-western coast, but as the best ones are reputedly on the south-eastern side of the island, (which does have a decent road leading down to several of them), we returned via the same road, intersecting just below San Andres, and heading due south all the way through Las Casas and Tabique (El Pinar), to the southern-most town of La Restinga. As there seemed no road linking us to the main coastal route heading northwards, we doubled-back once again, taking that same road all the way to Puerto de la Estaca, before going south on the coast road again.
Having to re-trace our steps on a number of occasions was a pain in the butt -and I humbly admit that I managed to get us lost several times during the course of our travels, but I suppose that is what makes journeying into the unknown so exciting. Being unaware of where each road will lead, and uncertain as to what you might encounter along the way (and not knowing whether you will eventually get back on the right track again), is all part of the fun when you are a traveller. Although tempers can be frayed at times and frustrations can run high in certain situations, these are soon forgotten once everything has been ironed-out and then all of those mistakes and miscalculations which occurred during your adventures become nothing-more than another tale to tell, (or indeed, to write about) in one’s personal diary of life.
As tea-time approached we all agreed that we had done more than enough exploring for one day, and so we went in search of a couple of rooms for the night. Unfortunately, not a single hotel, motel, hostel, pension –or even a back-packers establishment could be found anywhere in the vicinity? I had been driving around in circles for ages -having told everyone in the car to be on the lookout for anything which remotely resembled a ‘B and B’, but we just drew a complete blank! Suddenly I spotted a police station on the other side of the road, and so I ventured inside, in order to do what one must do when one is completely lost, and that is to ‘ask a policeman’. There were three officers inside the building, and not one of them spoke a word of the queen’s English, of course, but the word ‘hotel’ is synonymous in any language, and so it did not take them long to figure-out just what it was that I was searching for.
However, trying to give me directions on how to get to the only ‘two’ hotels on the whole island, was an entirely different matter -and in the end my learned friend gave up hope of trying to explain it to me, by scribbling hand-drawn maps on pieces of scrap paper. Calling-over to one of his colleagues, to come and cover the front counter, he then beckoned me to walk with him outside, where he immediately jumped into his police car, urging me to follow him through the town centre, and out onto the main road. Lord knows where we ended-up on the island, but there seemed to be very few buildings around -and we were certainly out in the sticks? Had we not been following an officer of the law then I would have had serious reservations about any of us getting out of the car, but knowing that it was safe we all followed our new-found friend into this small, but very quaint restaurant and waited for the proprietor to appear.
A lady in her fifties came over to greet us, and our friendly officer kindly explained our predicament to her, to whit she then led us outside the building, to a wooden door, which was located at to the top of a concrete staircase. Once inside, the lady showed us all of the bedrooms that she had available, which were two double’s and four single rooms. All of them were on the same floor, and they were all situated adjacent to each other. As there was nobody else staying here we were told that we could have our pick of the rooms -all of which were very neat and clean, I might add -and so we opted for a double room for my partner and I, and a single room each for the children.
After unloading our bags, we went downstairs into the restaurant and ordered a mass of mixed dishes from the menu-card -most of which we could not understand, I have to confess, as my command of the Spanish language has never been that good -but barely a morsel was left, and by the end of the night we all went to our beds with bulging tummies -and garlic breath. At dawn my partner and I were woken by the sound of a cockerel crowing, and looking out of our window we could see him perched on his rock, standing proudly to attention -and no doubt saying to himself “Come-on you lot –get your backsides out of your warm, comfortable beds -and make the most of the new day ahead!”
The children’s rooms were not facing our local farmyard, and so they slept soundly while I carried our luggage back down to the car –before slipping into the restaurant for a nice cup of hot coffee. As our landlady appeared, I walked over to her, not really looking forward to paying for the pleasure of five rooms, but accepting the fact that we were left with no other alternative, but to stay here last night, and take what was available to us. However, when the lady told me that the single rooms had cost me the equivalent of £8 each, before apologizing profusely for having to charge me twice that for the double room, (because it was high season), well you could have knocked me down with a feather. As I had paid for last night’s food and drink separately, my total bill came to less than fifty quid!
Within an hour the kids were up, and after enjoying our first continental breakfast together, we were back out on the road and heading for ‘Puerto de la Estaca once again. Although El Hierro is the smallest island in the Canaries, (along with the fact that we spent less than thirty hours discovering the place), it is embossed in my memory as one of the most enjoyable experiences of the whole trip. Maybe it is because of the help we received, and the friendliness we encountered when we were at our most vulnerable, or perhaps it is because being ‘The smallest’, El Hierro is also an under-dog -and from a personal point of view, under-dogs need all the support they can get.